Submitted to: Missouri Prairie Journal
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: 8/15/2008
Publication Date: 9/2/2008
Citation: Hezel, L.F., Kremer, R.J. 2008. Healing and Building Soil on Prairie Birthday Farm. Missouri Prairie Journal. 29(3):14-20.
Technical Abstract: Native tallgrass prairie was restored as an integral part of a small, food-producing farm called Prairie Birthday Farm in Clay County, Missouri. Reconstruction of native prairie was essential to the farm’s goal of producing high quality food for the family, area residents and restaurant chefs. Improving soil fertility using organic methods was a primary objective for producing high quality food. This was achieved through deliberate soil restoration and protection by prairie reconstruction with native warm-season grasses and forbs in 1995 on gently sloped loess soil. The topsoil was highly eroded from many years of intensive row-crop cultivation by previous owners. Non-native grasses, primarily fescue, and weeds were methodically removed by over-grazing with horses, intensive mowing and annual mosaic burning. A prairie plant ecosystem similar to vegetation that once occupied the farm was restored by over-seeding and inter-planting with desired native species. Roots of native prairie plants penetrating the dense and compacted soils improved water infiltration, nutrient cycling, organic matter deposition, soil structure, and activity of microbial communities. Soil health monitoring carried out since 2003 reveals that conversion to prairie plants reduced erosion and improved soil organic matter, soil aggregation and biological processes, reflected in high microbial enzyme activity relative to soils in nearby over-grazed pastures and intensively mono-cropped, cultivated fields. The reconstructed prairie is not only restoring soil health similar to native prairies but is also providing wildlife habitat; increased beneficial insect numbers and species; abundant nectar sources for honeybees; and a habitat for insects important for pollination of the diverse culinary plant species cultivated at the farm. The importance of soil characteristics to grassland ecosystems is evident by the fact that biologists use them as a key character in classifying prairie types. The prairie ecosystem is often used as a benchmark ecosystem to provide a reference soil quality or soil health assessment. Soil organic matter, accumulated and maintained at high levels under prairie vegetation, is responsible for numerous dynamic interactions among soil properties and is thereby considered the key indicator of soil health. Healthy soils function within the prairie ecosystem through organic matter that facilitates a highly diverse community of soil microorganisms actively contributing to numerous soil functions including plant-nutrient cycling, improved plant growth, improved soil structure, carbon sequestration, beneficial symbioses with plant roots, and suppression of plant diseases, insect pests and invasive weeds. Research on soil functioning under natural grassland and prairie ecosystems has been applied to strategies developed for optimizing nutrient management and plant diversity to restore environmental quality in agroecosystems. Integration of natural ecosystems into the agricultural landscape is encouraged to protect the environment by serving as nutrient sinks and capturing soluble nutrients and potential xenobiotic contaminants before they reach aquatic ecosystems. Farming processes at Prairie Birthday Farm have advanced the ecologically based farming system because prairie and other native plants benefit organic production not only through the integration of established prairie within the farm landscape but also by intercropping native prairie and wild edible plants with horticultural crops. Native edible plants (persimmon, plum and elderberry) occupy micro-environments and, based on tolerance to insect and weather stresses, they increase the overall productivity and ecological stability of the farm. Their unique array of diversity in taste, color, texture and modes of preparation represent a rich component of the disappearing cultural food-based her